San Diego City Beaches: Point Loma and Ocean Beach

Setting over the water, the sun illuminates the cut-out letters reading Ocean Beach on a metal gate.

Photo © James Gubera, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Visitors can leave pretension behind when they travel through Ocean Beach (just call it OB—the locals do) and Point Loma. These funky little communities are home to flower children and military folks alike, all harmoniously united through the same laid-back attitude toward life.

OB sports a unique beach scene at the southwest corner of land where the San Diego River and Pacific Ocean meet. The beachside streets are a maze of unique local shops and eateries, and the neighborhood attracts bohemians and beatniks with its distinct counterculture vibe. Point Loma tends to be a little less irreverent, but just as easygoing. Named for the peninsula that juts out at the entrance of San Diego Bay, this area understandably has a long relationship with the sea and a storied naval history. After all, it is surrounded by towering coastal cliffs on one side and a steady procession of boats in the bay on the other.

Nearly five centuries ago it was the landing point for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast, who arrived in 1542. Over the region’s history the neighborhood has been home to numerous Navy installations. The area is also a haven for fishing boats and pleasure craft, with marinas crowding the harbors that line the neighborhood on its east side.


Sights

Ocean Beach Park

Ocean Beach Park

Keep your ears open for the sound of guitars astrummin’ from the dreadlocked denizens at Ocean Beach Park. The mile-long beach extends from the OB Pier all the way to the mouth of the San Diego River. Unlike the bronzed and buff regulars up in Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, the crowd here is more concerned with enjoying the scenery than showing off.

At the north end of the park is Dog Beach, an off-leash area that runs next to the river. It is fun to watch the dogs dance like whirling dervishes in the sand here, dodging and roughhousing with each other while their owners either socialize or watch amusedly. Just be sure to keep your sandals on, as some owners aren’t always responsible about picking up messes. If you are a dog owner, be sure not to set that bad example. There are complimentary bags stands and garbage cans scattered over the beach. Also, remember that Fido can’t drink the water here. The river water is brackish once it gets this far downstream. For hangin’ tongues, visit the parking lot where there is a water fountain made just for mutts.

Ocean Beach Pier

Ocean Beach Pier

At 1,971 feet long, Ocean Beach Pier (5091 Niagara Ave., 24 hours daily) is the longest concrete pier on the West Coast. The massive concrete structure extends far enough out to give anglers a chance at deeper waters and fish within the Point Loma kelp beds. And the T-shaped deck at the end of the pier gives passersby enough room to look out to sea without worrying about getting caught in someone’s line. On quiet winter days this is a great place for a smooch with your sweetheart.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park (Sunset Cliffs Blvd., 619/235-1169, 24 hours daily) certainly earns its name. When the sun kisses the ocean each day these sandstone cliffs glow orange. The cliffs are unstable, though, so be careful where you step when you’re hunting for a snapshot. There are parking lots sprinkled along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard for access up top. The adventurous can trek from the parking lot at the pier around the cliffside bend farther south to explore the small beaches and tide pools hidden within the cliffs’ nooks and crannies. Just be sure to bring a tide chart and be aware of the time so as not to get trapped during high tide.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument

Right on the tip of Point Loma is Cabrillo National Monument (1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr., 619/557-5450, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, $5 per vehicle, $3 for cyclists), a 144-acre park featuring tide pools teeming with sea life, a historic lighthouse open for tours, a historical museum, and the best view of downtown and San Diego Bay in the city.

The entrance is midway up the steep hill that leads to the top of Cabrillo Monument. As you drive past the gatehouse, you can veer right to wind down to the tide pools that face the Pacific. Put on some sandals with traction and clamber down for a look at the tiny crustaceans, fish, and other sea life that live in the craggy fissures that make up these pools. Just be sure to tread lightly and take only pictures— the ecology here is fragile and will only persevere with your cooperation.

Continue up the main road to the top, which holds the other highlights of the park. Be sure to bring your binoculars in the winter, because this 350-foot peak affords great views of migrating grey whales to the west.

Named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who discovered San Diego Bay nearly five centuries ago, the park features a 150-foot statue of the explorer at the summit. Steps away is a museum that commemorates his exploration and his interaction with the Kumeyaay natives.

Also within walking distance of the parking lot is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Towering 422 feet above the sea, the lighthouse opened in 1855 as a major disappointment to the sailors it was intended to guide. Most lighthouses work best when placed on high, but engineers had not factored in the layer of fog that often plagues San Diego in the summertime. After a couple of decades trying to make it work, authorities built another lighthouse farther down the cliffs of the peninsula in order to get the light under the fog. But the old lighthouse stands today, restored and opened for visitors to tour at their leisure.

On your way up you will probably notice a cemetery on the left side of the road, a seemingly endless sea of marble gravestones rolling over green grass. The park is also home to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where 88,826 souls from armed services are interred. On Memorial Day, the navy works with other branches of the military to hold a moving ceremony on the grounds to pay respects to those who have fallen to protect our freedom.

Shelter Island

Shelter Island

Located just north of downtown, right across Harbor Drive from the airport, Shelter Island (2126 Shelter Island Dr., 6 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily) isn’t actually an island anymore, but it has an isolated hideaway feel to it nonetheless. Once nothing more than a shoal off of Point Loma’s shores on San Diego Bay, the island’s land level was raised and a causeway was added in the 1940s when the Port Authority dredged between the island and mainland to provide better marina space there.

In the 1950s, when GIs returning from the Pacific brought back with them an excitement for all things Polynesian, many resort and restaurant developers decided to take advantage of the newly connected piece of land to build a sanctuary that pays homage to the tropics. Today the decor still persists, with many of the hotels, restaurants, and shops on the west side of the island sporting a tiki motif and lush gardens reminiscent of Hawaii and other far-flung islands. Behind all of this is a forest of sailboat masts in the marinas that sit between the island and the rest of Point Loma.

All of the buildings overlook Shelter Island Park, which spreads along the entire east side of the island. The 1.2-mile park has few obstructions, lending an incredible view of San Diego Bay, with downtown San Diego in the distance and north Coronado Island in the more immediate foreground.


Entertainment and Events

Nightlife in Point Loma

The best bars in this neck of the woods are on Ocean Beach’s main drag, Newport Avenue.

Most of them are rowdy affairs, with revelry reaching its peak during football season. Sunshine Company Saloon (5028 Newport Ave., 619/222-0722, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–2 a.m. Sat.–Sun.) is one of the largest of the bunch, with two stories to mingle through with pint in hand. Clear days are particularly pleasant on the second-story open-air patio, from which you can catch a glimpse of the beach.

Another OB classic is a couple of doors down at Cheswick’s West (5038 1/2 Newport Ave., 619/225-0733, 11 a.m.–midnight Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–midnight Sun.), a particular favorite among leather-clad bikers. Snag a stool near the open-shuttered window to watch passersby wander to and from the beach.

For something stronger than beer, swing by Tony’s Cocktail Lounge (5034 Newport Ave., 619/223-0558, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–2 a.m. Sat.–Sun.) for a martini. The drink slingers here pour them stiff. The atmosphere isn’t snooty, either. The leather booths are about as formal as it gets in this place.

Performing Arts in Point Loma

The Shelter Island marinas offer a scenic backdrop for the stage at Humphrey’s by the Bay (2241 Shelter Island Dr., 619/523- 1010, www.humphreysconcerts.com). In the summer Humphrey’s hosts a perpetually sold-out concert series in its open-air venue of 1,350. It has hosted popular musicians such as Chris Isaak, B. B. King, and Lionel Richie.

For edgier artists and up-and-coming bands from the San Diego music scene, try SOMA (3350 Sports Arena Blvd., Ste. I, 619/226- 7662). A smaller venue in this same vein is Winston’s (1921 Bacon St., 619/222-6822), which is located near the beach. This popular bar hosts live music every night on its well-equipped, though small, stage.

One of the most unique venues in San Diego, NTC Promenade (2640 Historic Decatur Rd., 619/573-9260) is made up of a complex of buildings formerly owned by the Navy and now redeveloped as a part of the massive Liberty Station complex of homes, condos, shopping, and restaurants. The Promenade plays host to arts and dance events throughout the year from organizations such as the San Diego Ballet Company, Jean Issacs’s San Diego Dance Theatre, and Capoeira Brasil.

Performing Arts in Point Loma

Come summertime, the biggest festival this side of the San Diego River is the Ocean Beach Street Fair, which takes place the last weekend in June. Tents overwhelm the beach’s streets with vendors selling arts and crafts by local artists, while bands rock out on the stage near the pier, and pots roil nearby as amateur chefs duke it out for bragging rights at the event’s annual chili cook-off.

Shopping in Point Loma

Kobey’s Swap Meet

On the weekends, bargain hunters take over the parking lot at the Valley View Casino Center for Kobey’s Swap Meet (3500 Sports Arena Blvd., 619/226-0650, 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Fri.–Sun, $1). Running continuously since 1976, Kobey’s is San Diego’s largest market and is the thirdlargest on the West Coast. Each weekend over 1,000 sellers put out their clothing, electronics, fresh produce, and assorted other items for the 30,000 shoppers that come to pick through their wares.

Newport Avenue Antiques

San Diego is a great city for antique hunting, and one of the best strips of antique shops in town is in Ocean Beach. Newport Avenue’s 4800 block features an antique district with an assembly of shops that sell treasures from all different time periods and geographies.

The largest and most eclectic selection can be found at Newport Avenue Antique Center (4864 Newport Ave., 619/222-8686, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily), which offers space to vendors in its warehouse-like space. There you’ll be able to find items from the early 1800s all the way up to the mid-20th century. Collectors of 1950s-era memorabilia will find a visit there particularly fruitful.

The center also features Asian antiquities, but the better bet for these items is across the street at Oriental Treasure Box (4847 Newport Ave., 619/221-9071, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., closed Mon.). This smaller shop has a very strong selection of kimonos, handcarved woodwork, and ceramics, among other Asian curiosities.

Vignettes (4828 Newport Ave., 619/222-9244, 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.), on the other hand, is better suited for collectors of Western antiques. Its vintage Paris souvenirs are particularly fun to browse through and it has a medley of elegant furnishings and decorative accessories.


Sports and Recreation

Surfing and Swimming in Point Loma

While swimming is certainly allowed at Ocean Beach, those looking for a place to jump in the water without a board can find cleaner agua at the beaches farther north. The San Diego River empties out at Ocean Beach, and as a result the water here sometimes catches the dirty runoff that collects during the river’s traverse downstream.

Unless it has rained, however, the water is far from dangerous, and because of the good breaks that occur here, the surfers are not deterred. The area south of the pier is good for all levels of surfers. For board rentals, visit Cheap Rentals (3689 Mission Blvd., 858/488-9070, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.) just across the West Mission Bay Drive Bridge in Mission Beach. In addition to hourly and daily rentals, this place also loans out equipment by the week.

North of the pier all along Sunset Cliffs (Sunset Cliffs Blvd.) there are reef breaks that lifelong surfers dream about. However, this area is only for the advanced surfer. The rocks leading up and down the cliffs are unstable and dangerous, and the tricky tides can easily create conditions that can quickly pin the inexperienced to the cliff sides. The bottom line is this: Don’t paddle in here unless you have the chops for it, and always bring a buddy.

The rails of the Ocean Beach Pier offer some of the best land-based saltwater fishing in the county. Ocean Beach Pier Bait Shop (5091 Niagara Ave., 619/226-3474, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) can help you find something enticing to put on the end of your hook.

To ply deeper waters, wander over to Point Loma, from which a number of deep-sea tours depart. Point Loma Sportfishing (1403 Scott St., 619/223-1627, $42–95 per person)) offers a range of trips: half-day, three-quarter-day, full-day, overnight, and multi-day outings. For a fishing trip to really brag about back home, try one of the overnight squid fishing trips and hunt giant squid the size of peewee-league linebackers.

Fisherman’s Landing (2838 Garrison St., 619/221-8506, $200–400 per person) also offers chartered trips of varying length. In addition, the Fisherman’s shop has an extensive line of rods and tackle for those looking to pick up some supplies for a trip out on their own.

The well-protected waters of San Diego Bay are a haven for sailing enthusiasts from ’round the world. If you’re sailing into San Diego on your own craft, Point Loma’s the best bet for guest slips and boating-related amenities. The sanctuary provided by Shelter Island and Harbor Island offers refuge to dozens of private marinas, as well as the Harbor Police’s guest marina (1401 Shelter Island Dr., 619/686- 6227) on the south end of the Shelter.

This facility has 22 slips for boats up to 40 feet and end ties for longer boats, as well as water, shore power, restrooms, and parking. No reservations are taken, but you can reach the Harbor Police on VHF 16 to ask if space is available.

Additionally, if you belong to a yacht club, you may have reciprocal privilege at the numerous clubs that make their home in Point Loma. This includes the granddaddy of them all, the San Diego Yacht Club (1011 Anchorage Ln., 619/221-8400). Call ahead for specifics.

For those who don’t have their own boat, there is still plenty of opportunity to sail the Big Bay from Point Loma. Sail San Diego (955 Harbor Island Dr., Docks A–D, 619/297- 7426, $85) has morning, afternoon, and sunset sails from Harbor Island each day.

And for a truly unique vacation experience, Harbor Island Yacht Club (Marina Cortez, 1880 Harbor Island Dr., 619/291-7245 or 800/553-7245) offers fiveday live-aboard, learn-to-sail vacations. For $1,995 you’ll stay aboard a Catalina slipped at the yacht club while you learn the art of catching wind.

Originally constructed by the navy in 1925, the Sail Ho Golf Course (2960 Truxtun Rd., 619/222-4653, greens fees $15) has a long and storied history for such a small course. When it was in the hands of the military, the course was just four holes, used as part of a physical fitness and well-being program for recruits. At some point Sam Snead acted as head golf professional there when he served in the navy.

In later years the course was expanded to nine holes and eventually transferred to the city, where it was especially popular for junior tournaments. San Diego natives Craig Stadler and Phil Mickelson both played here as kids. In recent years the course was renovated. As a part of the redesign, a clubhouse with a pro shop and a restaurant was added, making this a comfortable course for all comers.

If you prefer racquets over clubs, Barnes Tennis Center (4490 West Point Loma Blvd., 619/221-9000) is a world-class tennis facility just a few minutes away from the beach. Catering to the highly competitive youth tennis movement in San Diego, Barnes lets kids hit around for free. Adults can play here too, for a nominal fee. Hard courts are $6 per hour and clay courts are $8.50 per hour, with a $4 light fee at night.

For a true test of strength and stamina, turn your quads to jelly on Cabrillo Memorial Drive, which climbs steeply up to Cabrillo National Monument. The views are your reward— as is the ride down—and the $3 walkin and bicyclist entrance fee is lower than if you enter the monument in a car.

A more leisurely (and flat!) ride can be had along both banks of the San Diego River. The north-side path leads up to Friars Road, which has a protected bike lane leading into Mission Valley. The south-side path leads to Pacific Highway, which provides easy street access to the haciendas of Old Town. Bike rentals are difficult to find in Point Loma and Ocean Beach if your hotel doesn’t provide them. The closest shop is Bike Tours San Diego (509 5th Ave., 619/238-2444, 8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily) in the downtown Gaslamp District.

To get a taste of the gnarly San Diego skate scene, visit Robb Field Skate Park (2525 Bacon St., 619/525-8486, 1 p.m.–sunset Mon.– Fri., noon–sunset Sat.–Sun., day pass $5). The 40,000-square-foot facility was planned with the help of local skate pros and features a streetcourse design with a number of bowls, handrails, ledges, and blocks. All skaters must wear protective gear, and minors must have a liability waiver signed by their guardians.

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